Men of Jerusalem, I’d like to give all of you the benefit of the doubt. I’m going to assume that you don’t realize what your actions do to women, how they make us feel, and the impact that they have on us. It’s better than the alternative, which leaves me thinking that you’re intentionally creating and perpetuating a culture of fear and discomfort in our shared city.
I grew up in New York. I know how to protect myself as a woman, how to be aware of my surroundings, to stay in well-lit and populated areas, and to never put myself in any unnecessary danger. Maybe it’s not ideal, but why risk it?
I also grew up in a post-Columbine world, where schools taught my peers and I lessons about bullying and kindness, and the power of our actions to impact others in lasting, meaningful ways. Years ago, I realized how sad it is that most people don’t so much as smile at or acknowledge each other in the street, and how the simple gesture of looking someone in the eye or smiling at them has the potential to impact their day. It’s a practice that I do my best to employ constantly, to smile at all who pass me, and to do so genuinely. The vast majority of the time, I’m met with either returning smiles, or blank stares. Both of these are fine to me – I’m doing my part, and the reaction is not the issue.
But since moving to Jerusalem, I get another reaction. I’m sure this is the case in cities around the world as well, but I’m speaking to my city, the city where I live, work, and call home. In this city, many men take advantage of the innocent kindness of a stranger’s smile. A smile is not an invitation to be followed, cat-called, or leered at. It’s not an opening for harassment.
In this city, this holy city where so many devout individuals live their lives, maybe it’s easy to get used to a certain standard of dress or behavior. I personally think that every woman should have the right, and be able to dress however she chooses and feels comfortable, and be free from harassment. In Jerusalem, where so many are dressed modestly, I feel the burden of being a modern, secular Jewish woman, more than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Anywhere else in the world, I’d be considered a pretty conservative dresser. Today, for example, I was in a dress that, while sleeveless, covered me from collarbone to knee. But in Jerusalem, in my city, where I struggle to live as a secular Jew, this “scandalous” outfit somehow makes it acceptable for religious men to brush up against me, to follow me down the street calling after me, to make me feel uncomfortable in my home.
Men of Jerusalem, it doesn’t matter what we’re wearing. Every woman deserves to be treated with the respect that you would treat your own mother, wife, daughter. By not giving us that respect, you’re creating an environment that makes me hesitate before walking in certain areas at night, or venturing too far by myself. You’re making me second guess my practice of genuinely smiling at those who pass me, because instead of simply doing a kindness, I now feel that I have to worry about what others might be reading into my smile.